Sometimes you read two Sherlock Holmes stories back to back that don't usually have any reason to be in that order, and something odd turns up. There are the common story plots, recognizable at a distance, and the similar moments, as in the end of "Yellow Face" and "Missing Three-Quarter" where Holmes and Watson quietly remove themselves from a private family moment.
"Missing Three-Quarter" was our discussion point of the evening at Sherlock Holmes Story Society night at Peoria Public Library, and having been looking at "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" just a few days before, I noticed something very odd:
John Watson has this thing about complimenting dead women.
Not saying he's a necrophiliac or anything, but we have at least two stories in the Canon with what we are told are beautiful corpses. At least one of them even has her eyes open.
"A woman, young and beautiful, was lying dead upon the bed. Her calm, pale face, with dim, wide-open blue eyes, looked upwards from amid a tangle of golden hair."
That was from "Missing." And now, "Devil's Foot."
"Miss Brenda Tregennis had been a very beautiful girl, now verging upon middle age. Her dark, clear-cut face was handsome, even in death, but there still lingered upon it something of that convulsion of horror that had been her last human emotion."
That second one even has the classic "died with a look of horror" but still remains beautiful in Watson's eyes somehow. It's almost creepy. Or respectful, in some 1800s sort of man-way? Or possibly the thought, "I'd better compliment these dead women so their ghosts don't get angry and start haunting me!" occurring?
I don't know. Lady Frances Carfax came out of the coffin alive, but she still has "the statuesque face of a handsome and spiritual woman of middle age" when she just might still be a corpse. Watson either doesn't see or doesn't describe the other woman who lay dead in that coffin, but if he had, one wonders about what a beautiful old woman she might have been.
I had to go look at "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" to see how Watson described pieces of a dead woman, and if they got compliments, but it's Holmes who is complimenting Mary Cushing's "finely formed" ear in this tale. Which is kind of weird, as it's an ear. I mean, how finely formed is any ear when you separate it from the composite beauty or handsomeness of a whole head? But this is Sherlock Holmes, so he gets to be a little weird.
Watson, though? What was up with him and those good-looking dead women? As a wise adult tells all of us at some point in our youth, "Sometimes it's better just to say nothing." But maybe nobody got that word to John.